Patrick Peritore, by most people’s standards, is successful at his job.
Petoire, a political science professor at Missouri, has written three books, consulted for the World Bank, taught on three continents and has done fieldwork in eight countries. His academic works have dealt with subjects ranging from South American socialism to Latin American biotechnology.
All of that can seem trivial when an opponent is swinging a 3-foot sword with lightning-quick speed at your head, though.
“The basic decision in fencing lasts about one twenty-fifth of a second,” he said. “The whole time you’re trying to fake out your opponent and countering his fakes. It’s not easy, to say the least.”
Peritore is the head instructor at Columbia Fencing Academy, a school that meets every Wednesday and usually has 12-18 students. Fencing is a sport that pits competitors against each other who essentially sword fight with a saber, an epée or a foil sword.
The sport is extremely fast-paced, and a fencer scores a point whenever his sword touches the body of his opponent.
“It goes fast, but it’s as complicated as chess,” Peritore said. “There’s that much strategy.”
Like many of his students, Peritore said he was introduced to fencing by taking a class out of curiosity and had no experience while an undergraduate. After several years, Peritore was skilled enough to be offered a scholarship to train at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where he fenced for three years.
Peritore’s greatest competitive achievement came with a fourth-place finish at the Los Angeles Invitational.
“But then I was beaten by a guy who was an Olympian and an All-American,” he said. “Then graduate school came, so that kind of derailed me for a while.”
Peritore didn’t fence much for most of the 1970s, but started again in the ’80s and started training to teach fencing in the ’90s. Six years ago, he founded Columbia Fencing Academy. The time was ripe in the United States for fencing to grow, he said.
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“Well, after the Berlin Wall fell, a bunch of Eastern European coaches came here with a lot of knowledge,” he said. “And really since then, we’ve been trying to grow fencing in the U.S. from the ground up. You know, like soccer: start with kiddie leagues and get people hooked.”
Even as Peritore is teaching, he is also training for the next level in fencing. Peritore is a provost d’armes, the sport’s second-highest ranking, and is studying to be a fencing master, not an easy task. If all goes as planned, he will take the test in a few years at the San Antonio Pan-American Fencing Academy.
To become a master, Peritore said, one has to train about five or six years. When a fencer is ready to be tested for the highest level, he or she appears in front of a five-member board and must pass an oral test of knowledge and a physical test of skills.
That’s the easy part.
The applicant must also produce a sample training routine if he or she were coaching a fencer for international competition. If that workload isn’t hard enough, the applicant has to write a thesis on the intricacies sport.
“It’s just like you’re writing a paper for anything else,” he said. “You have to prove knowledge of the psychological and physiological aspects of fencing. It’s pretty tough.”
Tough? Compared to having to decide what kind of defense to suddenly mount when a sword is being thrust toward your heart at a speed faster than most people blink?
“Well, none of it is easy,” he said. “I guess I’ll just see how everything works out. After all, (becoming a master) is about teaching, and in the end, that’s what I want to do.”
Scott Fontaine’s columns appear Tuesdays.